Chapter 4:  Becoming Invulnerable



[Stoics] held it to be not in keeping with the prerogative of reason that a being endowed with it. . .should yet be exposed to such intense pain, such great anxiety and suffering, as arise from the tempestuous strain of desiring and shunning. . . .  It was thought that the proper application of reason was bound to raise man above them, and enable him to become invulnerable.

--Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation[1]

We can no longer conceal from ourselves what is expressed by all that willing which has taken its direction from the ascetic ideal:  this hatred of the human, and even more of the animal, and more still of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself--all this means--let us dare to grasp it--a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will! . . And. . .man would rather will nothingness than not will.--

--Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals[2]


I have pointed out some of the merits of adapting ourselves so thoroughly that we become completely invulnerable in the sense that the attainability and retainability of felicity is guaranteed no matter what happens to us.  Restricting ourselves to desires that are satisfiable come what may is the ticket to invulnerability.  In this chapter I will describe the only four routes to complete invulnerability that are open to us.  All four adapt desire.  Then I will make some observations about these and about wishful thinking.  In so doing, I will in effect be launching my attack on the project of attempting to achieve an invulnerable form of complete happiness, for the shortcomings of the lives that are available to invulnerable people will start to become apparent.



For us to be invulnerable, the attainability and retainability of felicity must be guaranteed.  (One might speak of achieving invulnerability at various levels of happiness, but typically, as I have said, it will be felicity that I have in mind.)  Well, in theory this capacity is easy to come by.  To adapt ourselves enough to secure our invulnerability, we need only transform all of the demands we make in life so that we can meet them all by ourselves.  To become self-sufficient or autarchic in the sense that our desires are limited to ones whose satisfaction is completely in our control is to become invulnerable.  

            What is and is not completely in our control needs clarification, for it is easy to overlook how difficult it is to achieve complete control.  We are not yet invulnerable if we have only desires whose satisfaction is not affected by anything outside ourselves, by whether or not one's lover is true, or by whether or not the stock market crashes, for example.  The trouble is that we ourselves are not fully in our own control.  We cannot will away a head cold, Tourette's syndrome, our genetics, parentage or IQ.  We can only change our attitude about these things, and, although we have agreed to ignore this for the time being, even our attitudes can resist reformation.  Consequently, even as private a task as figuring the sum of 5 and 12 is not strictly speaking one we may care about if we are to become invulnerable by being autarchic.  We could get interrupted in our calculation by a sudden onset of narcolepsy or senility--or death.  It will not be as easy as at first it might have appeared to care only about matters that are completely in our control. 

            Still, I do not want to haggle about which specific features of people are under their control.  Some features, such as those I just mentioned, are unambiguously beyond an individual’s control, but about others there is plenty of room for disagreement.  Instead of launching into a  debate about what is in our control, I will defer to the simplifying stipulation made in Chapter 3 and work under the assumption that our attitudes and our attitudes alone are sufficiently controllable by us to count as 'completely under our control.' 

            At least in some moods, Epicurus had autarchy in mind as the goal to reach through adapting, although he does not appear to think that full autarchy is possible.  I classify Epicurus as an autarchic because after identifying happiness as the absence of pain (see Chapter 2), he argues that a good way to avoid pain is to eliminate desires whose satisfaction is difficult or impossible.  For much pain that is caused by thwarted desires is completely avoidable by avoiding the desires.  But he is not quite a full autarchic since he thinks that we are subject to pain no matter what we want.  Someone who does not care one way or another about food (supposing such a person could exist!) would still suffer if starving.  Consequently Epicurus thinks that we need to (retain and) satisfy certain desires (such as the desire not to starve) in order to avoid suffering.  Epicurus is inclined to think that these desires are easy to satisfy but appears to acknowledge that under certain circumstances we may be unable to satisfy them no matter how hard we try. 

It is easy to obtain that which removes the pain caused by want and that which perfects the whole life.  Therefore, he [a wise person] has no need of things that involve struggle.  (Doctrine 21)[3]

Those desires that do not bring pain if they are not satisfied are not necessary;  and they are easily thrust aside whenever to satisfy them appears difficult or likely to cause injury.  (Doctrine 26)

In various passages Epicurus explicitly praises self-sufficiency.  Speaking on behalf of us all, he claims that

we regard self-sufficiency as a great good, not so that we may enjoy only a few things, but so that, if we do not have many, we may be satisfied with the few, being firmly persuaded that they take the greatest pleasure in luxury who regard it as least needed, and that everything that is natural is easily provided, while vain pleasures are hard to obtain.  . . .To be accustomed to simple and plain living is conducive to health and makes a man ready for the necessary tasks of life.  It also makes us more ready for the enjoyment of luxury if at intervals we chance to meet with it, and it renders us fearless against fortune.[4] 

The wise man who has become accustomed to limited means knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.  (Saying 44)[5]



Becoming self-sufficient is only one of the means by which we can become invulnerable.  A second way is conformism, whereby we adjust our desire scheme in such a way that we want what is going to happen anyway.  We conform our will to what will happen; we take the attitude, whatever happens is what I want.  Since what will happen is largely out of our control, conformism is not a type of autarchism.

Conformism comes in two versions.  In one, we figure out one or more things that are going to happen inexorably, and we train ourselves to value them and nothing else.  We desire things that will happen with necessity, and about other matters we are indifferent.  For obvious reasons, this version of conformism might be called necessitism.  In the other version of conformism, which might be called malleabilism, we internalize the attitude, whatever happens is good. 

Necessitism is a way to become invulnerable because it protects us from having interests that might be thwarted.  It ensures that we interest ourselves only in what will definitely occur, whether it is the continued attraction of objects to one another according to the inverse square law, the continued truth of mathematical laws, or whatever.  Of course, would-be necessitists must avoid taking an interest in false claims which they mistake for necessary truths.  The possibility of error is a real danger.  But the danger must be stated carefully.  People who believe that 2 + 2 = 4 cannot possibly be mistaken in that belief, though they might go on to mistakenly believe that 2 + 2 = 5.  If they do believe that 2 + 2 = 5 they are not necessitists who have made an error, but rather people who are in error about being necessitists.

Versions of necessitism run from the clearly silly to the seemingly sublime.  Obviously, it would be absurd to devote one's life to caring solely about the fact that 13 plus 12 equals 25.  For one thing, it is not clear how to work oneself up about such a thing.  (Is one to exhibit distress at the thought that 13 plus 12 should not be 25?  That would be incoherent.  Perhaps one is to dwell fondly over that sum?)  Another problem is that such a concern is overly narrow.  Why not expand one's horizons so as to take in the sum of 3 plus 2?  Why not go the whole hog, and care about all mathematical truths?  Of course, a person who truly cared about nothing but the sum of 13 and 12 would not experience this narrowness as a defect.  But the idea of converting oneself into such a 25'er is ridiculous from the standpoint of any human being.  My worry is not that human psychology would prevent anyone from actually become a 25'er; human psychology is incompatible wither the way of 25’ers, but even if somewhere there were a myope who could make the transition, it would be a bad idea.  The problem is that the transformation would amount to suicide.  One could not care about any contingent matter such as one's continued existence or the welfare of others.  One could not even care about contemplating the sum of 13 and 12; it is one thing to want 13 and 12 to sum to 25 (the desire that a particular necessary truth hold), and quite another to want to contemplate that sum (the desire that a particular contingent truth hold). 

It would be only slightly less inane to convert to a view whereby we interest ourselves solely in any and all mathematical truths (even if we throw in logical truths for good measure).  But already we are close to a version of necessitism that some people would embrace.  In "The Study of Mathematics," Bertrand Russell is effusive in his praise of mathematics:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty--a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, . . .yet sublimely pure. . . .  The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.  . . .Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.

            Philosophers have commonly held that the laws of logic, which underlie mathematics, are laws of thought, laws regulating the operations of our minds.  By this opinion the true dignity of reason is very greatly lowered:  it ceases to be an investigation into the very heart and immutable essence of all things actual and possible, becoming, instead, an inquiry into something more or less human and subject to our limitations.  The contemplation of what is nonhuman, the discovery that our minds are capable of dealing with material not created by them, above all, the realization that beauty belongs to the outer world as to the inner, are the chief means of overcoming the terrible sense of impotence, of weakness, of exile amid hostile powers, which is too apt to result from acknowledging the all-but omnipotence of alien forces.  . . .Mathematics takes us. . .from what is human, into the region of

absolute necessity, . . .and even here it. . .finds a habitation eternally standing, where our ideals are fully satisfied and our best hopes are not thwarted.[6]

Russell recommends that we value mathematics for its beauty.  We are safe in appreciating mathematics, since nothing can possibly mar its beauty or indeed affect it in any way.  Moreover, very few things can prevent us from contemplating mathematics.  But, of course, as pure necessitists we must carefully avoid letting the value we assign mathematics lead us to value contemplating it, for whether we will continue contemplating anything at all is a contingent matter.

            Was Russell a necessitist?  No, since he would not have recommended valuing nothing besides mathematics, and because he would have recommended valuing the act of appreciating mathematics.  Nonetheless, as the above passage makes clear, Russell was drawn to the study of mathematics in part, at least, because it lends its students a large measure of invulnerability. 

            An element of necessitism is also at work in doctrines that emphasize focusing our attention and concern on any sort of order, whether transcendent or immanent, that is thought to be inexorable.  Taoism, a set of views developed primarily in the Tao Te Ching, is such a doctrine.  (This book is often attributed to Lao Tzu, who is thought to have lived in the sixth century B.C.E., but who Lao Tzu was and whether he wrote the Tao Te Ching is uncertain.  One authority, Graham (1989) dates the Tao Te Ching at around 150 B.C.E.)  One of the things referred to by the term ‘Tao,’ meaning ‘way,’ is a mysterious order by which the universe operates.  This order is said to be nameless (XXXII) and indescribable (I), though we can call it great and address it as ‘Tao’ (XXV).  Tao is thought to be responsible for everything there is; it existed before “heaven and earth” (XXV) and is the “beginning of heaven and earth” (I) and the “mother” of the world (XXV).[7]  Tao is also described as constant, inexorable (I, XVI), and changeless (XXV).

            Clearly the Tao is considered to be of overwhelming value by Taoists, and it is an inexorable order which risk-averse people may venerate without worry.  Indeed, Lao Tzu goes on to found an entire ethics on his observations about Tao, but that is a story I will come to later.

            I suspect that many mathematicians and logicians (not to mention philosophers of language) are drawn to their subjects out of a motivation similar to Russell’s interest in invulnerability.  I also suspect that philosophers such as Spinoza and Lao Tzu who attempt to see the world in terms of a collection of inexorable laws are drawn to their visions out of a necessitist motivation.  The urge to distance oneself from life, inspired by an interest in achieving invulnerability, is probably active in much of the abstracting enterprise of philosophy and related disciplines.  Instead of immersing themselves in life, instead of living, philosophers talk (or read) about life and living.



Malleabilism is the second type of conformism.  It results from internalizing the attitude that whatever happens is good.[8]   Malleabilism embraces necessitism.  Like necessitists, malleabilists may anticipate and desire that which will happen with necessity.  But malleabilists may also go beyond necessitism.  Such pure malleabilism is severely constrained, however, since malleabilists must resolve to like the future no matter what it involves. 

            If we are to be malleabilists we must carefully avoid making any demands on the course of events.  We must not have any standards we expect to be met over time, or any desires concerning the future.  Any such concerns may be disappointed, and the central resolve of the malleabilist is to accept anything whatever that occurs.

            In order to adjust as they wish, pure malleabilists are forced to develop a backwardly-focused perspective on life.  They must wait for the future to reveal itself, then accommodate themselves to what has happened.  Only after events have unfolded as they will can the malleabilist be sure about what specifically to want or value, and that will be:  whatever has happened or is happening. 

            To the extent that nature is uniform, the attachment of malleabilists to patterns of events that occurred in the past might spill over into pleasant anticipation of similar things to come.  But to the extent that malleabilists live in chaos they will find that policy dangerous.  If they trained themselves to value a certain sort of pattern, and began looking forward to its recurrence, then they would have to retool once the pattern faded out, and would no doubt find at least a brief pang of disappointment impossible to avoid.  So to avoid disappointment completely, pure malleabilists will have to cultivate no expectations or desires for the future at all (aside from desires whose satisfaction is guaranteed).  In fact they must largely ignore the future, and spend their time cultivating their memories, impressing upon themselves how marvelous it is that thing have gone as they have. 

            Because they must largely ignore the future, malleabilists are forced to take a radically passive approach to life.  Activity and the lack of any preferences for the future do not mix.  Acting requires having goals for the future, for essentially one acts in order to actualize the possible world one prefers among all the others.  But goals are precisely what the backward-looking malleabilists must avoid.  For most of us, a large part of the pleasure in life is derived from noticing that the demands (or requests, preferences, hopes, and so on) we make on life have been met.  Malleabilists cannot allow themselves to desire pleasure in met demands since they must avoid making such demands.  Any pleasure they have must have a peculiar origin; it would be something like a bemusement or delight associated with noticing events for which one had no expectation or preference.  Historians, perhaps, might make good malleabilists, so long as (per impossibile) they could avoid searching the past in order to verify some preset thesis and could instead savor whatever tidbits about the past they dig up.

            It is crucial that malleabilists not care about the past until it becomes past (or present).  They must not worry about (what might be called) their future pasts and presents.  Meeting this injunction will be difficult since those who greatly care about the past and present and spend a great deal of their time thinking about it normally will plan ahead so that their future pasts and presents are desirable.[9]  However,  their concern about the features of future pasts and presents might lead them to want to shape events to come, which they may do only by acting in the present to influence future events which will eventually become part of the past.

            Conformists also must be inordinately tolerant of pain.  If whatever happens is good, or at worst a matter of indifference, then any pain they endure is at worst a matter of indifference.  Hedonists like Epicurus therefore eschew conformism. 

            Notoriously, stoics are tolerant of pain; the explanation is that stoics are powerfully inclined toward conformism.  The conformism of stoics can be verified by examining the advice of Epictetus, a freed Roman slave who became a well-known stoic during the first century.  In Principle 1 of his Manual, a compilation of Epictetus' teachings by one of his students, Epictetus makes it reasonably clear that his main aim is to tell us how to transform our desire scheme so that we are incapable of being harmed.  But the conformist element in the Manual is already suggested by the central doctrine of stoicism, which is that there are principles governing the natural order which are important enough that we should harmonize our lives with them.  This central doctrine lends itself to the necessitist idea that we should care only about unchangeable principles and the malleabilist idea that we should reconcile ourselves to the ways of the world. 

            Of course, the advice that we should remain in harmony with nature is extremely vague because the term 'natural' is so unclear.  However, Epictetus does clarify the stoic doctrine, and what he says makes it clear that he is a malleabilist.  In some places Epictetus interprets the stoic's advice this way:  welcome anything that happens to you.  Thus in his Manual Epictetus says:

Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.  (Principle 8)[10]

Wish that only to happen which does happen. . . .  (Principle 32)

If you are going to bathe. . . , you will set to work more securely if you say to yourself at once:  'I want to bathe, and I want to keep my will in harmony with nature,' and so in each thing you do; for in this way, if anything turns up to hinder you in your bathing, you will be ready to say, 'I did not want only to bathe, but to keep my will in harmony with nature, and I shall not so keep it, if I lose my temper at what happens.'  (Principle 4)

The point in the first two of these passages is very clear:  what one should consider truly important is welcoming whatever happens.  That point is somewhat muddied in the third passage (which occurs in the Manual first), where Epictetus seems to allow for the possibility of wanting things like baths as well as wanting whatever will happen.  I think that we must read him as saying that we may desire things like baths only if it turns out that we will actually bathe.  We must only want what will be, and if it turns out that we shall clean up, that is splendid, while if instead we will spend the next ten years accreting filth, why, then that will be just fine.  Que sera, sera.

            Epictetus is not simply a conformist.  Other passages in the Manual introduce a powerful strand of autarchism:

If. . .you try to avoid only what is unnatural in the region within your control, you will escape from all that you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease or death or poverty you will be miserable.

            Therefore let your will to avoid have no concern with what is not in man's power; direct it only to things in man's power that are contrary to nature.  (Principle 2)

Exercise yourselves then in what lies in your power.  (Principle 14)

You can be invincible, if you never enter on a contest where victory is not in your power.  . . .There is but one way to freedom--to despise what is not in our power.  (Principle 19)

For piety towards the gods know that the most important thing is this:  to have right opinions about them. . .and to have set yourself to obey them, and to give way to all that happens, following events with a free will, in the belief that they are fulfilled by the highest mind.  . . .But this you cannot achieve, unless you apply your conception of good and evil to those things only which are in our power, and not to those which are out of our power.  (Principle 31)

When you make use of prophecy remember that while you know not what the issue will be, but are come to learn it from the prophet, you do know before you come what manner of thing it is, if you are really a philosopher.  For if the event is not in our control, it cannot be either good or evil.  Therefore do not bring with you to the prophet the will to get or the will to avoid, and do not approach him with trembling, but with your mind made up, that the whole issue is indifferent and does not affect you and that, whatever it be, it will be in your power to make good use of it, and no one shall hinder this.  (principle 32)

The last of these passages reveals more malleabilism in Epictetus.  We are, he says, to make up our minds that the future is a matter of indifference.  It is something we can accommodate no matter what.  But in this and the other passages he equates the natural with what is in our control, and he wants to say that we may regard what is under our control as important.  Accordingly, he has combined malleabilism with autarchism.  The hybrid view requires us to value everything that has happened but concerning the future to maintain a careful indifference except about matters that are completely under our control. 

            A view that shares elements of necessitism and malleabilism, as well as the wishful thinking approach discussed in Chapter 3, is Christianity (and Judaism, as well as the various cults that derive from Christianity and Judaism).  That Christianity employs wishful thinking is clear enough.  Like every religion except ancient Buddhism (which along with Confucianism I would classify as a philosophical picture rather than a religion precisely because early Buddhism avoids wishful thinking), Christianity makes it easier to engage in wishful thinking by encouraging us to care only about the truth of some entirely unfalsifiable picture in whose truth we believe through an act of will.  The formula that is used by religions again and again embeds a promise of complete satisfaction within some unfalsifiable story about supernatural beings who can think of nothing better to do than pandering to dead human beings.  This type of wishful thinking is not a form of autarchism since what it leads us to care about is goings-on that are beyond our control.  We are to think it important that a supernatural (and hence undetectable) being exists, but whether or not such a being exists is obviously not something that we can bring about.  Since tales of the supernatural promise us virtually unlimited happiness, however, they are highly useful devices by which people are able to move toward (subjective) invulnerability.

            The conformist elements of Christianity are evident as well.  All sects of Christianity emphasize the importance of turning our wills (and therefore our lives) over to God.  But the Christian renunciation of our own lives comes in different flavors.  If we add that God always gets what God wants (by necessity), we get a version resembling necessitism, but of course a position is not true necessitism unless the matters around which it centers truly are necessary (compare a hypothetical mathematics cult devoted to savoring the ‘fact’ that 5 + 5 = 13).  If we leave room for the possibility that God need not necessarily get what God wants, say because we are allowed to resist God, then turning our wills over to God involves us in a form of malleabilism.



The final way to become invulnerable is to will nothing, to be indifferent about all matters.  I will call this approach nihilism, but it must not be confused with the doctrine that there is no such thing as objective value.  It is one thing to make the metaphysical claim that values lack objectivity, and quite another to claim that one does not attribute any value whatever to anything.  We can deny that anything has objective value and still attribute subjective importance to many things.  (It may also be possible to grant that things have objective value yet deny that they have any subjective value, any value for us.)  At any rate, nihilism of the sort I mean to discuss is the denial that anything has any subjective value, any value for us.  If we acknowledge the existence of objective value, we may be nihilists in my sense only if we do not care about objective value.  The nihilist has an attitude of complete indifference.

            Taoist ethics tends to be quite nihilistic, but the nihilism is accompanied by conformism and autarchism.  Let me digress briefly to bring out the nihilist, conformist and autarchist elements of Taoism.

            Taoists and stoics both tend to be conformist.  They are necessitist since both suggest that the natural, inexorable order has great value.  Stoics and Taoists both tend to be malleabilist as well, since they think that we are to conform to the way nature operates.  Taoists express their conformism by urging us to model ourselves on the Tao (XXV).

            The term 'Tao' means at least two things:  the order by which the universe operates, and the ethical doctrine the careful student is supposed to be able to read out of that order.  The official picture of nature's operations is obscure.  There is little about nature's operations in the main Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching.  However, the picture seems to be that things in the universe naturally degrade into a lesser state of complexity, and move toward a greater state of entropy, leading ultimately either to nothingness or to a state closely resembling nothingness.  It was also from a state resembling nothingness that the things in the universe developed in the first place.

Turning back is how the way moves;

Weakness isthe means the way employs.

The myriad creatures in the world are born from Something, ans Something from Nothing.  (XL)

            The core of Taoist ethics is the advice that we prefer attributes that are in line with or modelled after the reversion by which the universe operates.  We are to be inactive rather than active, and submissive rather than aggressive.  Correspondingly, nature itself is said to be inactive and submissive.  "The way never acts yet nothing is left undone (XXXVII)" corresponds to the advice that we be inactive and desireless; "the way is shadowy, indistinct (XXI)" corresponds to the advice that we be self-effacing and unassuming; "the way. . .accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit (XXXIV)" corresponds to the advice that we eschew honor and pride; "turning back is how the way moves; weakness is the means the way employs (XL)" corresponds to the advice that we be retiring and submissive.

            So the official goal of Taoist ethical conduct is to conform to the degeneration taking place in nature.  But I think that there is another explanation of why the Taoists adopted the ethics they adopted.  One of the most common reasons given for passivity, submissiveness and the other attributes favored by Taoists is that these attributes make us safe. 

But should one act from knowledge of the constant

. . .to the end of one's days one will meet with no danger.  (XVI)

This emphasis on avoiding danger suggests that Taoists are out to achieve an invulnerable form of tranquility, and that aim accounts for many of the recommendations made by Taoist ethics.  In fact, we find in The Tao Te Ching passages that suggest conformism, autarchism, and nihilism.  Indeed, the Taoist ethics is little more than a collection of strategies for becoming invulnerable.

            In some passages the message is malleabilism.  We are told to keep "to the role of the female" (X).  We should be like water (LXXVIII), or like an "uncarved block" (XXVIII).  We should return to "being a babe."  In a couple of passages the author tells us why he thinks it important to become childlike.  In XX it is said that the child is "inactive" and unattached, "as though with no home to go back to."  In LV the child is described as "supple", making it adaptive to whatever happens.  It is no doubt for similar reasons that we are told to be like water or an uncarved block, and to adopt the feminine role, which the author took to be a passive role.  The main emphasis in these passages is that we can be invulnerable if we are submissive and pliable in the way advocated by the malleabilist.

            While Lao Tzu emphasized being childlike and "feminine" and thus achieving the sort of malleability that involves passively accepting, desiring, and adapting to whatever happens to occur, malleabilism is not the only thing he has in mind.  In several passages Lao Tzu makes the point that we should reduce our desires, and not strive to accomplish things.  In some places the idea seems to be autarchic.  We are advised not to desire what is out of our control:

The sage. . .does not value goods which are hard to come by.  (LXIV)

Having ambitions is not merely risky, it is certain to lead to failure, given that in the natural order things inevitably decline, or “turn back.” 

            In other passages Lao Tzu sounds nihilistic.  We are told to "attain emptiness" and to "hold firmly to stillness" (XVI).  Desirelessness and inactivity of a nihilistic sort are recommended:

Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block, have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.  (XIX)

The way never acts yet nothing is left undone.  Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it, the myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.  After they are transformed, should desire raise its head, I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless block.  The nameless block is but freedom from desire, and if I cease to desire and remain still, the empire will be at peace of its own accord.  (XXXVII)

There is no crime greater than having too many desires; no greater disaster than not being content; no misfortune greater than being covetous.  Hence in being content, one will always have enough.  (XLVI)

In the pursuit of the way one does less every day. . .until one does nothing at all, and [then] there is nothing that is undone.  He who conquers the world often does so by doing nothing. (XLVIII)

The sage desires not to desire. . . .  (LXIV)[11]

            Like Taoism, Buddhism leans heavily toward nihilism.  As I noted earlier, Gautama's conception of happiness was freedom from suffering and its cause:  thwarted desires.  With his third "noble truth" he recommended his formula for happiness, namely, jettison desires:

What is the Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering?--It is the utter and passionless cessation of this same craving,--the abandonment and rejection of craving, deliverance from craving, and aversion from craving.[12]

            It is worth repeating something I said in connection with Epicurean hedonism:  not all suffering can be traced to the thwarting of desires, so eliminating the latter will not necessarily eliminate all trace of the former.  But Buddhists, like stoics, might manage not to care about being in pain.  If they failed to desire the absence of pain, they could guarantee themselves tranquility even when on the rack.

Another interesting nihilistic philosophical stance is Pyrrhonian skepticism, a strategy for achieving happiness that was suggested by Pyrrho of Elis, as reported by his successor, Sextus Empiricus, in Outlines of Pyrrhonism.  At first glance, Pyrrhonism appears to be simple belief adaptation.  According to Sextus, a great deal of our anguish can be traced to the anxiety over errors we might commit when we are trying to decide what is the case.  People who want to believe only the truth about the world, especially those who seek the comfort of certainty about the world, which is unavailable, are inevitably troubled by the possibility of error.  Sextus goes on to say that we can eliminate this sort of anguish if we cease to pursue truth.  He seems prepared to go further:  we can achieve complete happiness, thought of as ataraxia (tranquillity), so that Sextus is committed to what we have called negative subjectivism.  Instead of pursuing truth we are to suspend all of our beliefs except ones that are "evident."  The mark of an evident belief is said to be its involuntariness (so that attempting to drop an evident belief is impossible anyway), and the main examples are beliefs about the appearances.  Thus it is not evident to me that I have hair on my head, since I can choose to believe otherwise, but it is evident to me that I appear to have hair on my head.

If Pyrrhonism were aimed solely at eliminating our worries about error, it clearly could not make us completely happy, since the possibility of making mistakes is only one among many sources of anxiety.  Sextus is not entirely clear about how happy his strategy is supposed to make us, but perhaps it is supposed to do little more than eliminate tension arising specifically from our not being sure what the truth is.  The "end of the Skeptic system," he says (1966, Chapter 12), "is quietude [tranquillity] in respect of matters of opinion and moderate feeling in respect of things unavoidable," which, of course, leaves the skeptic "troubled by things unavoidable," such as thirst.  In any case, unless the strategy is improved on in fairly obvious ways, it will do nothing for us.  An immediate problem is that merely dropping our beliefs (or the voluntary ones) about some matter leaves open the possibility that we have not dropped our desire to ascertain the truth about that matter, and if we retain that desire without any means to satisfy it, we will be in an agony of frustration.  Presumably the Pyrrhonian means to suggest that if we drop the beliefs then the desire will go with them, but that is not obvious. 

Perhaps it would happen.  Pyrrhonians think that if I have no views as to the objective value of something, then I will be indifferent about that thing:  "The man who determines nothing as to what is naturally good or bad neither shuns nor pursues anything eagerly; and, in consequence, he is unperturbed."  (Chapter 12)  However, indifference to an item is not the inevitable result of the lack of beliefs about its objective value.  I might be in a world of doubt about the true objective value of (say) fame yet crave it all the same.  The Pyrrhonian appears to be committed to the false assumption that I must judge something to be objectively good or bad if I want to have or to avoid it. 

Alternatively, the Pyrrhonians might have in mind something more like the following reasoning:  If I have no beliefs whatever about Jupiter’s moons, not even the belief that one might exist, I will probably have no desires about them.  Similarly, if I have no beliefs about the world beyond the appearances, not even the belief that it might exist, I probably will not have any desires about it.  But isn't it evident that Jupiter might have a moon or two, and that there might be a world beyond the appearances?  And aren't these possibilities consistent with wanting Jupiter to have a moon and the external world to exist?

At any rate, Pyrrhonians clearly mean to recommend that we drop the desire for truth along with our beliefs, and they presumably expect that along with our beliefs about the objective value of things will go most (if not all) of our desires.  But it is important for us to notice that dropping the desire to ascertain the truth is a good deal more involved than at first it might appear:  Our desire scheme includes many desires that make demands on the world.  We want to climb mountains, to silence critics, to aid our children, etc.  To simply drop all of our beliefs about the way things are (as opposed to the way things seem) is to leave us with substantial concerns about the way things are without any views about whether our concerns are met, and that is a surefire formula for anxiety.  If we want something of the world, we will want to ascertain whether the world is that way.  Clearly a very extensive modification of our desires will have to accompany the elimination of our beliefs about the nonevident if we are to increase our happiness at all.  Either we are to eliminate our desires (nihilism), or we are to restrict ourselves to desires whose satisfaction can be verified on the basis of our evident beliefs.  I expect that narrowing our concerns in the manner suggested by the second of these alternatives will mean shifting to some version of necessitism, leaving us with desires about necessary truths.  (To allow ourselves desires about the appearances is already too generous.  People who wrap themselves completely within the veil of ideas can be disappointed about that veil itself.)

But both alternatives involve modifying our desires.  So it is clear that what is really doing the work of making Pyrrhonians happy is the adapting of desire, not the adapting of belief.  If we have restricted ourselves to desires about the evident, it will not matter how many beliefs we have about the nonevident.  They will not bother us.  Keeping them or abandoning them, and being right or wrong about them, will be a matter of indifference.[13]


Some Features of the Four

The four routes to invulnerability differ in interesting ways.  Of the four, nihilism is the most elegant and straightforward.  It offers the most complete form of invulnerability.  Autarchics cannot be hampered by the world, for their goals are completely under their control.  Yet they themselves might thwart their desires.  That a goal is under our control just means that we can certainly accomplish it if we try hard enough. But autarchics still must find within themselves the energy it takes to strive toward any demanding aspirations they allow themselves, and if they fail then they will be unhappy.  Wishful thinkers are also vulnerable to weakness of the will, for the enjoyment of their fantasies depends on their faith holding out.  Necessitist conformists will probably worry a touch about the possibility that they might discover that the facts they considered necessary are not facts at all (so that they are not necessitists after all).  Malleabilists are in constant danger of wanting the patterns to which they have become attached to recur in the future.

            Nihilists have none of these worries.  Nothing can disappoint people who want nothing, not even themselves.  They cannot thwart their own desires since they have none, and no discoveries can worry them since they are indifferent about the way things are.  Mightn't they worry about ceasing to be nihilists?  Well, the possibility of their no longer being nihilists is a threat to their invulnerability, but of course they would not worry about the change; caring about nothing whatever, they would not care about no longer being carefree.  Becoming nihilists might well be a choice we make; but however it is that we become nihilists, remaining nihilists had better not require wanting to do so, for true nihilists will not.  Like dogmatism (and unlike autarchism and conformism) nihilism is not a self-supporting doctrine, and will probably be sustainable only if brought about as a physical condition, like aboulia, which certain patients with Parkinson’s disease display.  Those with aboulia display no initiative, no desires whatever.  They have no wills.  (The opposite condition is hyperboulia, which is a condition of extreme willfulness and urgency, willfulness of Schopenhauerian proportions.)

            Autarchics (whose name suggests that of the autistic people to which they bear some resemblance) will be largely inwardly-focused, supposing that what they concern themselves with is mostly their own attitudes.  True nihilists would go beyond autism:  willing nothing is neither outwardly nor inwardly focused.  It is unfocused.  Conformists and dogmatic wishful thinkers may be more outwardly-focused in one sense:  they will not necessarily dwell on themselves, unlike the more narcissistic autarchics.  Nonetheless, they will tend to be quite aloof, since their concerns are removed, if not otherworldly. 

            I said that malleabilists must adopt a completely passive approach to life since they must not expect anything of the future.  Necessitists are in more or less the same boat:  they can while away their hours savoring the necessities they cherish, and discovering more of them, but it goes without saying that nothing they can do will affect those truths.  Wishful thinkers, too, will be motivated to do little more than contemplate the vision in which they willfully believe.  It is crucial that wishful thinkers not consider it important to do something that is not assured, or they will disqualify themselves as candidates for invulnerability.  The vision they cherish must not motivate them to attempt anything at which they might fail.  Autarchics must be highly passive too, given that they have complete control over their own attitudes only.  As low-keyed as malleabilists, necessitists, wishful thinkers and autarchics would be, however, they would appear positively frenetic next to true nihilists, who cannot even dwell with pleasure on the past, being indifferent to it as to everything else. 



To achieve felicity by becoming invulnerable, we could become indifferent to everything.  That is the strategy I called nihilism.  The remaining options are to concern ourselves only with things in our control (the strategy of the autarchic), things that could not possibly go otherwise (the strategy of the necessitist), things in whose existence we believe solely through an act of will (the strategy of the wishful thinker), or, of course, a combination of the above.  Our attitude toward things that are neither in our control nor believed certain to go as we expect, either because they are not guaranteed to go that way or because we cannot pig-headedly think they will, must be one of welcoming resignation (the approach of the malleabilist) or cold indifference (nihilism again).  Thus, in achieving felicity through making ourselves invulnerable, we will end up taking each seeming evil that might befall us, such as the starvation, death, or torture of ourselves or others, and either willfully deny its reality, or welcome it, or meet it with indifference.

            Autarchism and conformism are self-supporting strategies, while wishful thinking and nihilism are not.  All of the strategies for achieving invulnerability will tend to make us passive and inwardly focused, except for nihilism, which makes us completely unfocused.  It is no wonder, then, that hedonism, stoicism, Buddhism, and Taoism, all of which exhibit a strong emphasis on the goal of invulnerability, also tend to emphasize a passive and introverted way of life.

[1]Schopenhauer (1958), p.87.

[2]Nietzsche (1969).

[3]Epicurus (1964).

[4]Epicurus (1966), pp. 56-7.

[5]Epicurus (1964).  Notice that Epicurus’s claim that self-sufficient people prefer to give than to get is false.  Autarchics have equal interest in giving and getting simply because they have absolutely no interest in either.

[6]Russell (1917), pp.48-59.

[7]The roman numerals refer to the traditional divisions of the stanzas, as in Lau Tzu (1963), and quotations are D.C.Lau's, Lau Tzu (1963). 

[8]There is a malleabilist strand in Nietzsche, insofar as he recommended that we value life and the actual in all its forms. 

[9]Malleabilists may not look to the future even in the following attenuated sense:  developing desires concerning the future so long as the demands those desires make are conditional on the future's features.  That is, they may not have desires that take the following form:

If the future has feature F, then let X be the case.

For example, it will not do for a malleabilist to want to be well fed in the future if alive.  The trouble is that the malleabilist will be disappointed if little food is available and if a host of other conditions are not met.  To expand the conditions to eliminate the possibility of any disappointment is tantamount to saying, let me be well fed if I will be well fed.

[10]Parenthetical references are to the translation in Epictetus (1966).

[11]For an authoritative discussion of Taoism (and other strands of ancient Chinese philosophy), see Graham (1989), and Graham's citations.

[12]Radhakrishnan (1957), p. 277.

[13]My discussion of Pyrrhonism is based on Luper-Foy (1990b).  For further discussion, see Nussbaum (1991) and Annas (1985) and their references.